On Our Dysfunctional Criminal Justice System

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Invasive airport scanners, innocent men executed, and the largest prison population in the world

Also shouldn’t the findings of the various “Innocence Projects” about the numbers of inmates on death row because they were wrongly prosecuted and convicted give us pause? Don’t such problems require serious questioning?
Traditionally, punishment has had four purposes: restoring justice, retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation. A sound ethician would say that restoring justice is of overriding importance, but it seems as if deterrence has become overriding (even though our crime statistics signal that this is not working). One wonders if we made justice the central concern, instead of the more utilitarian matter of deterrence, we would succeed better at both. The recidivism rate indicates that rehabilitation is mostly failing, and while pushed in the 1960s it has little popular appeal today. Should we be so surprised that rehabilitation has been problematical when our cultural weltanschauung gives such little attention to personal moral formation and, indeed, sees the individual as his own moral arbiter?
In case anyone thinks that concern for rehabilitating criminals instead of simply imposing harsh punishments is some “bleeding-heart” liberal concoction, he should consider that the great Father of the Church, St. Augustine, exhorted clemency for offenders so they might have the opportunity to correct themselves. The famous pre-Vatican II American theologian, Fr. Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R., wrote that a Catholic judge should take account of the troubled backgrounds of offenders and avoid “the crushing of aspirations toward improvement by excessive rigor.” The Church’s concern about human dignity and human rights hardly permits a Christian to cast a blind eye to the conditions inside many prisons. Also, Christian concern for our fellow man and the common good cannot help but trouble us about the disproportionate percentage of criminal behavior among certain demographic groups in the country.
This is just a small taste of the problem, and a few of the many questions that must be pondered. When it comes to something like criminal justice, Christians can easily slip into assessments from the lens of the political left or political right, or just simply embrace what seems to be so. This is a topic in the United States today that demands a serious analysis from a distinctly Christian standpoint (which puts human dignity, the true nature of man, sound morality, and simple fair play at the forefront). That is also a standpoint that is in line with American legal, social, and cultural traditions, which were so substantially forged by Christian influence.
Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville, co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. His most recent book is The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012). Many of his points in this column were explored in more depth in his article, “Rights, Liberties, the Common Good, and the Transformation of American Law in Recent Decades: Has the Legal Profession Failed in Its Ethical Obligation to Improve the Legal System?” in the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies (2008).

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